Concussion tries to achieve the depth and stakes of the Biblical story of Esther, without quite enough unchecked power or genocide to support the claim.
The movie is based on real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the danger of repeated brain trauma sustained by professional football players and his battle to publicize that danger. Omalu (played in the movie by Will Smith) is an immigrant from Nigeria with a stellar resume who works as a pathologist at a coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. Before every autopsy, Omalu asks the corpses to help him tell their story.
“The dead are my patients,” he explains.
That is how he approaches the body of Mike Webster, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster was a football icon and Pittsburgh’s “favorite son.” He died of an apparent heart attack, but was also living in a car, super gluing his teeth together, and making himself sleep by self-applying a taser. But instead of putting pressure on Omalu to figure out what happened to Webster, most people seem to want him to revere the body by leaving it alone. This is not how Omalu understands his duty to the dead; fortunately his boss agrees.
This kicks off an investigation that turns into a personal quest to understand what drove Webster mad. It turns out Webster follows a pattern of other former Steelers players who died by suicide or in odd circumstances. Omalu’s quest to understand meets resistance at every turn. Apparently, no one else is brave enough to ask “why?”
The movie tries to create a sense of crushing opposition and a vast conspiracy involving a huge corporation, state government officials, and violent fans that are out to get Omalu, his career, and his new family. Omalu pleads with the powers that be to “tell the truth” and says he only wants the players to know the risks. And in releasing the film, Sony has tried to capitalize on the idea that the movie is “for the players” by reaching out to NFL players, offering them free admission to the movie and special advance screenings in a variety of team cities. Sony wants to underline the importance of the movie as part of a “dialogue” about football safety in this country.
Concussion is based on an interesting GQ article about Omalu, published in 2009 by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Unfortunately, attempting to make a fictionalized movie both a blockbuster and an educational showpiece means the film suffers in both directions. Smith delivers a fantastic performance as Omalu. He is confused and determined with equal authenticity; he is believable as an immigrant “offended” by the response to his attempt to be a “good American.” But as a story, Concussion is a fairly formulaic tale of David versus Goliath, not Esther versus the King—even though Omalu’s wife delivers an intense “for such a time as this” speech.
The movie throws themes at the wall as if hoping one will stick. There is Omalu’s immigrant dream of being the perfect American at war with a country that equates football fandom with patriotism. There is the investigation into the science, where Omalu teaches himself what football involves and pursues the evidence, ultimately becoming a whistleblower who takes the proof to the media. There is a love story between Omalu and Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he meets at church (the movie seems to suggests this element exists solely to serve as context for their meeting early on). There is even a hint that the reason players cannot accept that they are suffering from a physiological condition is that as a disease it is not macho enough.